Noel Paul Stookey helped change the world. He was there at Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have A Dream Speech,” where he performed with his compatriots Peter and Mary. His voice and music graced airwaves across the country with songs of protest and change, helping the ‘60s message reach a wider audience. His “Wedding Song,” the royalties from which he donates to the Public Domain Foundation, has raised nearly $2 million for charitable causes.
But while many artists who found success in other eras end up on the nostalgia circuit and in Las Vegas casinos, Noel has continued to produce meaningful work that includes social commentary, which, after all, is the tradition of folk music.
“When I do my solo concerts, I start by saying many of you are here because I will sing a lot of Peter, Paul and Mary songs,” he explains. “I am deeply indebted to them, but life goes on, and I assume you have gone on, so many of the songs are going touch on things that are more contemporary. I might do a song about the drug trade, and Afghanistan, and the horrific Taliban attacks and the connection with the tragedy in the U.S., and then I might turn around and do a wedding song. I think it’s a mistake to get hung up on one platform. I think the appetite is there, but they seem to like it to be more balanced. If there’s one unifying factor, it’s the spiritual factor. Not everybody calls it ‘god,’ or the great divinity. Everybody has a different name for it, but there’s a hunger for the uniformity of an ethic. That’s probable the concept to love.”
Noel grew up in the Midwest but came to New York City when he was 20, where he found Paul and Mary. They were a part of the burgeoning Greenwich Village scene, where a lot of young musicians had gathered and created a folk music Mecca that has since taken on legendary status. “That was the fun for all the artists,” Noel recalls. “You weren’t alone there. The moment we finished our gig, we would go the next place to see what someone else was working on. I did a thing for PBS where I got a lot of the voices, including unusual ones like Neil Diamond. It was a rung on the ladder of experience for them before they went to the West Coast, which also included The Mamas & The Papas. There wasn’t a lot of ‘one man, one guitar’ anymore. The same way James Taylor had evolved. Folk music was really a sparse musical style, and James added a piano, and drums, then bass, and it was beginning to grow into a larger form.”
The first Peter, Paul and Mary album went to the top of the charts and stayed on it for two years. They hit the concert trail and spent years doing 300-plus shows a year. Noel realized that didn’t leave much time for exploring musical and personal growth, as well as family time, so in 1970, the group took a sabbatical and Noel moved his family to the coast of Maine.
“It gave each of us time to get a perspective on the intensity of what had gone on for 10 years—from ‘60 to ‘69 we had done something like 300 concerts a year. We wanted to dedicate ourselves to making a home, which was a wonderful experience. The number of performances we did then were maybe 30 in a year, and most of those were benefits. I was basically a recording studio. I had set up a studio here on the coast. I was occupied as an engineer and producer, as my night job, and my day job was taking care of the house and gardening. It was a really exciting time. The kids were between three years old and 12 years old. We had a real life instead of a showbiz life.”
But Noel’s voice was not silenced, as he continued to write, sing, and record, and to date has roughly 45 albums released, including a new project that has three phases. “On One And Many, five tracks were released digitally with one voice and one guitar,” he says. “The next five are called Capricious Birds, that’s me and a band. In fact, Peter joined me for one of the songs. Then these five I’m moving up to a symphony orchestra. One thing I did was two versions of “America The Beautiful,” and I wrote a bossa nova love song. It’s an eclectic release, the 15 tracks. Obviously when I go out solo, I’m a 74-year-old folk figure—it’s hard for me to go into a small coffee house with a 74-piece orchestra. But when you think of a song like “America,” it’s nice to have the grandeur of an orchestra.”
Noel has always been musically adventurous, even back in the days when folk was a bit more staid. “Musically, I’ve always been kind of a color guy,” he laughs. “The renegade, the one who did rock and roll, who would play major 7th chords in folk music. I never forgot I loved the counterpoint of baroque, of Brubeck. What folk music really brought to the plate in the ‘60s, was it stylistically important? Probably not, it only really lasted about six years, a guy playing a guitar or harmonica. The real impact was conceptually, the content of the songs, ‘Hey, you can sing about anything.’ I’ve never lost that great teaching from folk music. Just because I have a modicum of musical talent doesn’t excuse me from commenting on the world around me.”
The new versions of “America The Beautiful” include verses about immigrants and native sons, and the country’s desire for compassion, respect and understanding between cultures. Noel is also actively involved with music2life.org, and his wife has incorporated his music into multi-faith programs, at onelightmanycandles.org.
The music never stops, and the dream lives on. “Music for change, I’m a poster boy for that quotation,” Noel says.
Noel Paul Stookey’s new album, One And Many, will be released Aug 22. See him live at the Bergen PAC on Oct. 12. Find out more at noelpaulstookey.com.